If you've ever sat and listened to a four year old talk, or a nine year old, or really anybody... If you've sat and listened, then you were hearing a good story. Or you're way more polite than I am.
Something about what they were saying, and the way they were saying it was compelling. And it's always a common attribute of compellingness. It's a hard to quantify thing, and it's definitely not always the same thing, but if you stayed and listened, then there was something.
And if you think about what kinds of things make a story compelling, then you have an insight into what makes a book compelling.
If I'm doing this right, then right now you're probably thinking of that nine year old and the fact that you'd of course listen to his story because he's cute and you're polite and he's your sister's kid and so on. Well, yes. Those are compelling traits. Which, as a tangent, also apply to that book you're writing. Yes, your mom will love your book, she will find it compelling. … Because. She's your mom.
And there's a whole spectrum of compelling things, and any of them are fair game when you're trying to create a compelling story, whether in person, or in a book. To give a few examples: you can appeal to your audience using:
-novelty (novels/novelty – perhaps another essay)
So, what's my point?
Often, it comes up, because I write, that people ask what I like to read. Well, I like to read a lot of things, but one of my favorites is, broadly, technical manuals. How to get horsepower out of a chevy V8, the history of the boeing 707, cheating in nascar, finite element analysis, and so on. --And I always feel guilty admitting that I enjoy reading these things more than the things I'm supposed to like reading. I don't read much literature. I mean, I try, and I've waded through enough to know what it's like, but I do find the engineering stuff more readable. More compelling. And I don't think it's just me.
I think that the people who are writing these things have foremost in their minds that what they are writing about is insanely dull, and so what they strive for at all times is to make their topic as compelling as possible, using whatever means possible. And my assessment is that many people who are writing for entertainment, literature, lose sight of what they're supposed to be doing. They get esoteric and concentrate on deeper themes and issues, I guess assuming that the compellingness is intrinsic to the art form. But it isn't. You could write an erotic mystery, for example (something that seems to have a fair amount of built in compellingness), but if you take your audience for granted, you'll end up with boring/tedious.
My thought is that, if you analyze what separates the Steven Kings and the Tom Clancys and the Judith Krantzs and the Ian Flemmings from the rest of their peers in their respective genres, I think a couple of things come to the surface: one is that generally, these people are regarded as panderers, not artists of the highest order, the other is that they are panderers. They full sellout on making their stories entertaining, and readable, and compelling. And they sell a lot of books.
I suppose it's okay to strive for deeper themes, more complex forms, subtlety, nuance. I suppose there's even an audience for that stuff... people that find it compelling. Great! If you want to do that, go ahead. --I suspect that audience is small. Anyway, my point is: I think that if I'm going to tell a story, no matter what form and to what audience, I have to always keep that audience in mind, as my goal. Do everything I can to make my story interesting and compelling to them.
...and: I think, because I never know what to write blog essays about, I might have a stab at expounding on that list up above. Anybody care? More importantly, anyone have anything to add to that list?